LAPD Enlisted in Fight on Human Smuggling

Times Staff Writer

Faced with a booming -- but barely perceptible -- human smuggling trade in Los Angeles, federal authorities Monday called on the Los Angeles Police Department for help and announced the disbursement of $450,000 to train officers to better identify immigrant exploitation.

The three-year grant is an acknowledgment that forced prostitution and slavery often are byproducts of Los Angeles’ human smuggling trade, but remain largely undetected by federal authorities overwhelmed by other tasks such as counterterrorism.

Trafficking victims include immigrants who are lured to the United States by false promises of jobs and then forced into the sex trade. Others become victims after so-called coyotes guide them over the border but then force them to pay off their fee by working as indentured servants.

Although Los Angeles is a national hub for illegal immigration, federal prosecutors here secured only two convictions last year for human trafficking.


Nationally, the federal government’s track record isn’t much better: U.S. prosecutors filed 12 trafficking cases in 2003 and 10 each in 2002 and 2001.

“There should be many more,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Heidi Rummel. “But even though these are particularly heinous crimes, they are often hidden crimes and some of the most difficult to corroborate.”

Fearing deportation or reprisals against themselves or relatives in their home countries, exploited immigrants rarely report crimes or testify against enslavers in court, officials said.

The grant, which will pay for training materials, a Police Academy class and public service announcements about human trafficking, is another example of local law enforcement agencies entering the immigration enforcement field, which traditionally was the jurisdiction of federal authorities.

The county Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote today on whether it will train jail guards to screen prisoners for illegal immigration status.

The Sheriff’s Department estimates that a quarter of its inmates are undocumented immigrants and should be turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for possible deportation.

And in Sacramento, two bills introduced last month would make human trafficking a state crime, increasing penalties for violators and providing restitution for victims.

Lawmakers also claim that the bills, if signed into law, would prod local authorities to investigate such crimes more thoroughly.

U.S. Atty. Debra Yang said the money is part of a national Department of Justice program to combat a crime that has “reached a crescendo, as to the amount of human trafficking reported internationally.”

Yang cited government estimates that as many as 20,000 immigrants annually are forced into prostitution or indentured servitude in the U.S. Internationally, the estimate is 800,000.

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton acknowledged that his department is “on the beginning of a learning curve” regarding the crime, not unlike it was in the 1980s regarding domestic violence.

“We have to take it beyond just arresting the prostitute,” he said, and identify instances of coercion. The chief said that, over the course of his career, he might have failed to realize that some prostitutes were victims of traffickers.

Norma Hotaling, director of Standing Against Global Exploitation, said that failure is still common throughout the nation.

“The shift we’re seeing now with this kind of training is that the very people who were arrested as perpetrators are now being treated as victims,” she said.

Hotaling also praised efforts to create state laws against human trafficking and predicted that they could create a mandate for police departments to attack the problem more intelligently.

State Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Leland Y. Yee (D-San Francisco) said a bill he introduced would replicate the federal anti-trafficking law at the local level.

“We want to engage local governments and nonprofit networks to better understand how to identify women who are trafficked and how to support them, because ultimately what we need them to do is testify against the traffickers,” Yee said.

But victims’ advocates say that many victims decline to put themselves or their families at risk by testifying. Although U.S. law enforcement agencies have attaches in other countries, trafficking victims often come from nations that have poor relations with the United States.

Federal prosecutor Rummel said that some victims are eligible for three-year visas if they agree to testify in court.

“The T-visa allows victims to bring families into the United States,” she said. “But it takes a lot of time. That’s the one mechanism that we have, but it can take months, if not years.”